It begins with an ancient Indian stitch, and ends in a modern fashion story.
Global popularity of vintage Kantha is envisaging all the buzzwords of contemporary fashion world like handmade, upcycled, recycled, reversible, bohemian and repurposed. From Heidi Klum walking the streets of New York wearing Japanese Designer Mieko Mintz’sdivine Kantha Jackets to Luxury Fashion house – Hermès creating luxury scarves, this traditional Indian craft has taken the world by storm.
The term Kantha traces its etymology to the word Kontha in Sanskrit which refers to ‘rags’.
Kantha is one of the oldest forms of embroidery that originated in India. Its origins can be traced back to the ancient pre Vedic ages, however, Kantha embroidery as we know it today was found in KrishnadasKaviraj’s 500 year old book, Chaitanya Charitamrita.
The sari’s reincarnation – The Rural women of Bengal region of India mastered the craft of making Kantha throws – which means “quilt of recycled cotton rag”. Considered as one the best practice of ‘upscaling”, this innate Indian stitch resurrects new life into old saris. Layers of old discarded saris are joined this simple running stitch producing stunning ripples in the fabric. Being the oldest forms of Indian embroidery its history can be traced back to the Vedic times. The thought behind this needlework was to reuse and recycle old clothes and materials and transform their identity. The heritage of this stitch in even mentioned in literature of mediaevalperiod.This is establishes the ingenuity of Vedic Kantha embroidery.
As per belief, the legend of Kantha connects itself to Gautama Buddha and his disciple who use to clad themselves in with discarded rags that were patched and stitched together as this craft exemplify frugality.Another story fixes the name of Kantha that literally means throat, with Lord Shiva, who, according to Hindu belief consumed poison that was produced out of churning of the ocean and therefore the legacy of this resonates from the Indian Vedic times.
Traditionally women would take 4 to 5 sarees, layer them together and create different running stitches on them which they then used as blankets to cover their children with. Today this kind of embroidery can be found on shawls, scarfs, jackets, pillow covers, dupattas, and home furnishings as well. However, what started as a way to make life more comfortable went on to become a big trend.
Community recycling:The Kantha concept that started for recycling in the house expanded to community level with a unique concept that got ingrained in the process of creating valuable Kantha articles .Bhandiwali/Bartan wali or utensil-lady. ‘Bhaandi’ means utensils. These ladies do rounds of communities and would trade utensils for the garments that people want to throw away and can be recycled.She then sells them to vendors who buy it either to sell them on the roadside or recycle to make new clothes, bags or just fabric.
Global recognition: “Apart from India, Kantha is very popular in USA,UK, Japan and Scandinavian countries” said Naveen Choudhary, India sourcing specialist. Tarun Tahilyanishowcased his Kantha in summer/resort 2013 collection. Many western designers are visiting West Bengal regions of India to get their customized Kantha throws that are eventually designed and produced into jacket, overcoats and anoraks. These jackets are highly proclaimed fashion treasures as they are extremely limited.
The most beautiful part of kantha is the usage of old clothes. Vedic civilization believed old cloth has a supernatural purpose and it embodies prayers and ward off the “evil eye” which is reflected in the ragsthat used in Indian shrines or tied to the sacred trees. Since Kantha articles are made from recycled cloth, their feel is very soft but at the same time its magic will keep their wearers in well-being, prosperity and wish fulfilment.
Gaurav Mandal is a fashion designer and recipient of two national awards